Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Post-Thanksgiving Gratitude, Naikan Style

As I was cleaning the kitchen after dinner tonight I spotted the newspaper lying on the dining room table, and with just a twinge of resentment I thought, Ugh. I haven't read it. Not today, not yesterday. And then my mind went to a nasty place...Yeah! And if one more person asks me, Hey! Did you see the paper today? I am going to scream, NO! I don't have TIME! I am too busy being a Mom and working and picking up my kids and making dinner and then packing lunches and... and THEN I thought, I pretty much Don't Like That Person who responds so negatively, martyrishly when I innocently offer, Wow, did you see that article today?

So it's fair to say that I make a daily effort not to be That Person. And it's also fair to say that I could be reading the paper Right Now, instead of being all self-analytical on My Blog. But here I am. Because, *sigh*, my mind is going to that nasty place Too Often. And lately I have been in need of some kind of inspiration and recalibration.

I've been claiming that the 20s are for figuring oneself out and the 30s are for applying that knowledge. Here's what I know: I'm not a devout person nor a churchgoer, despite growing up and being confirmed in two Protestant denominations and having enjoyed youth group and the community offered by belonging to a church. I tend not to jump on spirituality bandwagons or trends, though I am curious, inquisitive, and willing to look into and consider. I would typify my philosophical/spiritual approach to life as being like constructing a collage or quilt: I pick up pieces here and there and glue or stitch them on, some of them more or less relevant at any given time.

Recently the Little Whiny Victim inside me has been throwing some fits, feeling a little like everyone is out to get her: Why oh why is she adrift on a sea of meaninglessness and what is the escape hatch besides quitting her job and selling her house and declaring bankruptcy, etc.? Meanwhile, the Practical Me is ashamed of Inward-Tantrum-Throwing-Me and suggests that there might be a way to rationalize this situation: Hey, remember that article you read in The Sun that made sense about perceiving things as NOT ALWAYS BEING AGAINST YOU? Can we find it, RIGHT NOW, PLEASE? And then Petulant Me regards the shelves of back issues of my favorite magazine and feels somewhat paralyzed by the seeming impossibility of finding my insightful needle in that dusty magazine haystack. So it's been a few more weeks of my vague sense that I should be looking for it.

But I found the article online today, encouraged by the added impetus of a friend waxing poetic about having a Sisyphean life but, Camus-like, needing to embrace it.

The article in question was an interview with Gregg Krech, of the ToDo Institute, about Naikan, a Japanese therapy that focuses on our perceptions of interactions with others. This approach seems particularly relevant to someone like me: married, with small children, in an intimate extended-family network, working with a boss, working with employees, serving young people, and living in a close-knit neighborhood. In other words, I interact with Many People on Many Levels All Day Long, which can lead to the frustration and irritation associated with Too Much Human Contact.

Naikan in a nutshell (as defined by me) is about walking in one's adversary's shoes and accurately seeing his/her perspective, and adjusting one's attitude accordingly. Also reflecting on the pain and agony one causes others on a daily basis. As in parenthood and everything else I need to understand how to tackle, I pick the best parts the sages have to offer and discard what doesn't apply, make sense, or fit. So, Naikan for me is about feeling grateful for the Many Things practically anyone in my life does for me, versus resentful for that One Annoying Thing any one person or The Entire World did to me today. It boils down to the glass half-full/half-empty outlook, and I am sure Voltaire's Candide might have fun with the rather Optimistic practices associated with hardcore Naikan retreats (like estimating the number of one's diapers one's mother changed, and appreciating her for it...) but for me, it serves as a simple refresher. For example, I could relate to this segment from the interview:

Krech: ...When you get home, and your spouse asks, "How was your day?" of course you respond, "Let me tell you how my day was. I had no water; there was a traffic jam; the copy machine was broken..." And yet you could say, "You know, I had a great day. The coffee maker worked; the car started; there was air conditioning at my office..."
Winter: But your spouse would look at you as if you were crazy.
Krech: You're right. We've gotten in the habit of only seeing the problems, because they are more dramatic. That's what gives a story value. But the cost is that we begin to focus our attention only on problems or traumas or tragedies...

Not that I can picture myself thanking the door for opening and the computer for obligingly booting up, but with Coworkers and Spouses and Other Moms and Pretty Much Anyone it's easy to fall into the No Really, I Have It Way Harder Than You trap. Like in college, when we would waste time at dinner comparing who had more studying to do (YAWN).

For me, a trip to Children's Hospital serves well to make me both humble and grateful. Despite the fact that we're usually there with regard to our daughter's medical issue, it's pretty hard not to notice that there are families and children dealing with conditions and disabilities and pain so much greater than our own. I always leave feeling fortunate.

So I am vowing to Not Complain About the Holidays, and to be More Zen about the Driver Who (For the Love of...!) Will Not Let Me In, and offer all the Characters I encounter on a daily basis Freedom To Be Who They Are.

And even some Gratitude.

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